I’ve been known to
frequently occasionally put my foot in my mouth. Which is why I wear Converse a lot. Their soles have a pleasant, somewhat vanilla flavor to them and just the faintest pecan aftertaste.
I’m most prone to humiliating myself and others when meeting celebrities. Unfortunately, I’ve met a lot of them. As a former journalist, screenwriter and music enthusiast, I’ve ended up hanging out with actors and musicians that some people would kill their mothers for the chance to meet. Of course, anyone who would off their mom to meet a mere mortal was probably thinking about the offing part long before the opportunity to meet Celebrity X arose, so keep that in mind.
A little over a decade ago, I was covering a film festival for a Florida magazine, interviewing actors, various industry big shots and writing about the festival’s community outreach program. My VIP Pass got me into everything: movie screenings, roundtable discussions with actors and directors, The Filmmakers’ Lounge, late night after parties, and a gala honoring Alan Alda, star of television’s M*A*S*H and feature films like The Four Seasons and Betsy’s Wedding. This was not my first time at the film festival rodeo, but Alan Alda was definitely one of the most respected actors I’d met at the time.
Growing up in the Seventies, you couldn’t not be in awe of the man who not only played the loveable smartass, Hawkeye Pierce on one of the most popular and longest-running prime time series of all time, but also wrote and/or directed many of the episodes. In fact, M*A*S*H’s 1983 finale, Goodbye, Farewell and Amen was directed by Alda – and remains the most widely-viewed episode in television history. Plus, Alda was known as the archetypal Mr. Sensitive Male of his generation, a loving husband and father, and an outspoken proponent of feminism and women’s rights.
As you can imagine, I had put some thought into what I would say when I finally met Alan Alda. In fact, I had gone above and beyond my normal preparation and brought with me a prop. One which I was sure would reduce the star to tears of laughter and cement our immediate friendship – not to mention garner me an in-depth and candid interview with him which would land me a gig writing for People, and revamp the world’s interest in Alda, whose career was in a bit of a slump at the time.
Throughout the gala, I’d sat patiently at a large, round table with other journalists and independent filmmakers I’d gotten to know over the past few days. Nervously, I balanced my prop on my lap as I chatted with my neighbors, all the while keeping my eye on the back of Alda’s head just a few tables away. Having attended events like this in the past, I knew my window of opportunity was a small one. Once a major award like this is presented to a celebrity, they are often whisked away for photo ops with bigwig festival contributors, board members and local politicians. And Alda didn’t look like the kind of guy who was likely to show up for the after party and booze it up with the little people. I needed to get to him and make that connection before the announcer hit the podium, at which point chitchatting with the guest of honor would be frowned upon. Particularly when you’re not seated at his table and are, in fact, squatting on the floor next to him, looking a bit like Gollum in a cocktail dress. My Pwecious, Alan Alda. My Pwecious.
Excusing myself I stood up, my prop clutched in my left hand, and strode purposefully towards Alda’s gray head, smoothing down my dress with my free fingers. By the time I made it to his table, the actor, dressed tastefully in a black tux, was talking with a woman I didn’t recognize, but I didn’t have time to engage in trivial things like manners and politeness. “Excuse me, Mr. Alda,” I said, my voice wavering slightly, “could I show you something?”
“Umm. Sure,” he replied with a nod to the woman that said, Another fan. You know how it is. Gimme a sec. Returning his attention to me, he asked kindly, “What’s your name, dear?”
Crap! He thinks I’m going to ask for an autograph. I’m a journalist, for chrissakes. I don’t ask for celebrities’ signatures; I ask for intimate details about their painful childhoods. I probe to discover what motivated their Emmy or Academy Award winning performances. I inquire about their exes and their most recent stints in rehab. And their phone numbers – I always go for the phone numbers.
Except this wasn’t exactly true. Though I’d been to film festivals in the past and hobnobbed with the rich and famous, this was the first time I had actually covered an event like this for a magazine. A regional magazine, in fact, for which I typically wrote articles about things like generic vs. brand name drugs, grandparents raising their grandchildren, and ways to summerize your home. But the film festival was big news in our town – and none of the other writers on staff had any experience dealing with celebrities. I mean, you can’t just allow anyone to talk to actors. An unsophisticated reporter could potentially embarrass the magazine by verbally regurgitating every possible version of “I’m such a big fan of your work” over and over again, thereby losing the actor’s respect and reducing any chance of scoring a big interview to nil.
But I wouldn’t let that happen. No, I was a professional and I was going to charm the pants off this mega star with my secret prop weapon. “I’m Cristy,” I replied in a deep, husky NPR voice, extending my hand to Alan Alda. Except I had squatted down by that time, my prop balanced precariously on my thighs, so when he took my hand in his, I began to tip…backwards. Desperately, I grabbed for the back of his chair with my left hand, but it was one of those rounded motherfuckers that slipped right out of my fingers. As the angle between my body and the ground became more and more acute, I could feel Alda’s hand tighten around mine, yet I was still falling. Did I outweigh Alan Alda? No, I was pin thin back in those days, but he wasn’t exactly a spring chicken. What if he had a back or hip problem and, by clutching my hand and pulling me towards him in attempt to save me from a dastardly and humiliating fall in front of at least 500 people, he was being permanently injured. I’d be forever known as the journalist who threw out Alan Alda’s back. Celebrities would avoid me like Gary Busey at future festivals because they would have heard stories about the reporter responsible for Alan Alda needing hip replacement surgery – the one that he didn’t survive because he contracted MRSA in the hospital and died of pneumonia. Dear God, I was killing Hawkeye Pierce.
There was only one solution. I had to let go. I would take the fall for all the Alan Alda fans in the world. As I relaxed my right hand, I braced myself for the painful thud that I was sure to come. Visions of myself lying supine on the floor, my little black dress bunched up around my hips, my panties – oh, shit! What kind of panties was I wearing? Please don’t let it be the Hello Kitty bikinis. Or the granny panties with skid marks. Perhaps if I’d considered the status of my underwear before deciding to let go of Alan Alda’s hand, I wouldn’t have been so impetuous with my decision to suffer this kind of embarrassment on behalf of the beloved actor’s health. I mean, the dude was old. Medicare old. He probably already needed surgery for dozens of bulging and herniated discs, and I was just going to be the proverbial journalist who broke the proverbial actor’s back.
But before I could re-tighten my grip, Alda’s adrenaline began pumping and he violently hauled me up from a failing squat to a semi-vertical position, which saved my ass both literally and figuratively, but also caused my prop to slide from my lap and flop open on the floor. Quickly, he dropped my hand and stared at the midnight blue book lying on the plush carpet. “You okay?” he asked, as almost an afterthought, still gazing at the book.
“Fine. I’m fine,” I replied, even though my legs were still shaking. Because I was fine. Alda was interested in my prop. My plan was going to work beautifully. Perhaps not in the way in which I had anticipated. I’d hoped to work in a little small talk before wowing him with what would likely be one of the funniest things he’d ever seen. But out of the corner of my eye, I could see the announcer organizing his speech cards, preparing to mount the steps to the stage. Why dilute this meeting with trivial chitchat when I could make a first impression that the actor would never forget?
“What’s that you’ve got there?” Alda asked, still eyeing the book. He probably thinks I want him to sign it. So cute!
I broke out in a wide smile. “It’s my fourth grade yearbook.” The wrinkle of curiosity wedged between Alda’s eyebrows deepened. “I’ve been wanting to show you this for years. You won’t believe it.” Retrieving the book, I quickly flipped through to a dog-eared page I’d shown many people over the years – all of whom had shaken their heads in disbelief and laughed. But now, I had the audience for whom this joke had been intended all along.
Flipping the book over so that Alan Alda could inspect the page entitled Seventh Grade, I pointed to a photograph. Of a thirteen year old girl. A girl who was the spitting image of Alan Alda. She had the same high forehead and smiling eyes. The same narrow-bridged nose with slightly-bulbous nostrils and a squared-off tip, reminiscent of a Doonesbury character. The identical toothy grin and strong, prominent chin.
“This is what you’d look like if you were a girl!” I exclaimed excitedly, tapping the space next to Alan Alda’s long lost twin.
The actor yanked the book from my hands, the look on his face swiftly transitioning from surprise to suspicion. Adjusting his glasses, he peered at the photograph intently. “It’s uncanny,” I blabbed. “She could be your daughter.” I chuckled at the hilarity of it all.
Was he looking at the wrong picture? Maybe he just couldn’t see it very well? It was a small photo – and in black and white. I reached over the top of the yearbook and pointed to the photo again.
“Yes, I see it,” Alda finally said. Then his lips spread…into a long, grim line. Lifting his face to mine, he regarded me and my grin through squinted eyes that weren’t so smiley anymore. “What are you saying?”
Huh? Is he a retard? I’ve heard of dumb actors before, but c’mon. “I’m just saying she looks just like you. I’ve showed it to lots of people over the years and everyone agrees that she’s your spitting image. You know, if you were a…girl.” I nodded my head enthusiastically, as if my bobbing head confirmed this statement.
The woman I’d interrupted when I’d first approached Alan Alda suddenly interjected, “Let me see, honey.” Honey? Shit! Without taking his eyes off of me, the actor handed the yearbook to his wife – whom I’d rudely cut off moments earlier.
“Hmmmm,” the successful children’s book author and spouse of Alan Alda said as she examined the picture, her face registering no expression whatsoever. Arelene Alda had one helluva poker face, but I could feel a kind of steam coming off of her. Like when a cartoon bull snorts and paws the ground in front of it before charging. Suddenly, I realized what I’d done. By suggesting that the girl in the photo looked so much like Alda that she could be his daughter, the actor and his wife believed I was actually accusing him of being her father. Holy shit! The thought had honestly never occurred to me, but Alda was the right age, after all. He could conceivably be her father. And as a wealthy actor, he’d probably been accused of fathering any number of illegitimate children by less-than-reputable women looking for payout. Instead of cementing our friendship with humor, I’d insulted Alan Alda…and at a gala in his honor, no less.
Thank goodness, I’d never gotten the opportunity to introduce myself as a journalist. That would have only made it worse; Alda would have thought I was cornering him with evidence of his indiscretions. He might have assumed I was going to blackmail him or write a huge exposé about a tawdry, extramarital relationship that he’d never had. As I tried to figure out how I could climb out of the grave I’d dug for myself, the actor’s eyes dropped to the VIP badge dangling around my neck. The one with my name and photo on it. The one that prominently read “Press” directly beneath my name. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!
In the background, the announcer was climbing the stairs and, throughout the room, the lights were dimming. Mrs. Alda closed the yearbook with an air of finality and handed it back to me. “Is there anything else?” Mr. Sensitive Man asked me, his expression flat, not a single warm crinkle around his eyes. I’m pretty sure that if the crowd hadn’t suddenly begun clinking their silverware against their glasses, I would have been able to hear him gritting his teeth. Mrs. Alda turned her back to me, picked up a fork and banged it loudly against her water glass.
“Umm. No. I just thought it was a funny picture,” I said in a way I hoped really communicated: I didn’t mean to accuse you of fathering a child with someone other than your wife. Truly. I’m just a total dumb ass. A social retard, if you will.
Alda just stared at me as I stood there awkwardly…not walking away. Walk away, Cristy. Turn around and move your feet and don’t stop until you’ve reached your car, driven home and into your garage, closed the garage door, rolled the windows down and let the motor run until you’ve fallen into a blissful carbon monoxide-induced sleep. But I couldn’t end it like this. I’d already blown my first impression in spectacular fashion. I had to, at least, wrap up our meeting with something positive. Finally, I gushed, “I’m a really big fan of your work.” The actor nodded, then turned his back to me as the announcer introduced to the crowd, Mr. Alan Alda, the recipient of the evening’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to television and film.
Whom I’m certain doesn’t have a love child who attended school with me in 1978.
If you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, Digg – wherever. Sharing is nice!
Please follow me on Facebook here.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like: